By Ian G. Wilson
“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” You might remember this line if you have ever read Rebecca or seen Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1939 film based on the novel. Though I came to the book without either having read it or having watched the movie, I recognized this sentence instantly as one that has appeared in many “Famous First Lines” lists. As you read the opening chapters of Daphne du Maurier’s remarkable 1938 novel, be aware that she is, ingeniously, giving the epilogue of the story at the very beginning. This is one of several curious devices that impressed me as I devoured the pages of this delightfully suspenseful book.
Rebecca is a carefully crafted story. Du Maurier plotted her novel well and brought it to exactly the ending it should have. But more than this, the author’s use of unconventional techniques effectively brings power and moodiness to the work. Opening with the ending is one. Another is that Rebecca, the titular character, is never seen in the book. The first wife of Maxim de Winter is ever-present, but she has been long dead when the story opens. The title is well-chosen, for as intriguing as the other characters are, the book is about Rebecca de Winter and the influence she had on those around her, as well as the hold she still has on the estate of Manderley.
Rebecca could be referred to as a femme fatale; she was tall, beautiful, and sexually ravenous. At the same time, she was manipulative and domineering. Those who met her were charmed by her ability to put them at ease, always knowing the right thing to say. Those who knew her, however, felt the raw power of a woman who was determined to have her own way, regardless of the moral standards expected of a wife of the late 1930’s. She ran the social calendar at Manderley like a precision instrument and made the locals believe that she and Maxim were the perfect couple. She was skilled and athletic, fond of sailing alone in a small boat, aptly named Je Reviens—“I Shall Return.” Yet she had a cruel and duplicitous streak, toying with men until she grew tired of them. The undercurrents of Rebecca’s true nature are painfully visible in this passage:
I remember her at sixteen getting up on one of her father’s horses, a big brute of an animal, too, that the groom said was too hot for her to ride. She stuck to him all right. I can see her now, with her hair flying out behind her, slashing at him, drawing blood, digging the spurs into his side, and when she got off his back he was trembling all over, full of froth and blood. ‘That will teach him, won’t it, Danny?’ she said, and walked off to wash her hands as cool as you please.
Another aspect of the book which is intriguing, and which I think adds to the air of mystery about the story, is the fact that the narrator remains essentially nameless throughout the text. We know she is a woman of twenty-one when she becomes the second bride of Maxim de Winter, a man twice her age. We know she is shy and insecure, always doubting herself, wondering if she has said the wrong thing, and perhaps this is one of the reasons that du Maurier opted not to give her a name. For she is the opposite of Rebecca: quiet, devoted, loving, unatheletic, with no social skills or interests except for an ability to sketch. She would fade into the background were she not tasked with telling the story. Her feelings about her short courtship in Monaco are described thus:
I am glad it cannot happen twice, the fever of first love. For it is a fever, and a burden, too, whatever the poets may say. They are not brave, the days when we are twenty-one. They are full of little cowardices, little fears without foundation, and one is so easily bruised, so swiftly wounded, one falls to the first barbed word. Today, wrapped in the complacent armor of approaching middle age, the infinitesimal pricks of day by day brush one lightly and are soon forgotten, but then—how a careless word would linger, becoming a fiery stigma, and how a look, a glance over a shoulder would brand themselves as things eternal. A denial heralded the thrice crowing of a cock, and an insincerity was like the kiss of Judas.
When she arrives at Manderley, the new Mrs. De Winter is overwhelmed by the grandeur of the household. Coming from a humble background as a paid companion to an arrogant American woman, she has no sense of what it is like to run an estate with servants. She is unsure whether Maxim truly loves her, and her courage only emerges when he reveals his true feelings toward his former wife. She is controlled by a fear of the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who is herself a puppet of Rebecca and remains fiercely loyal to her late mistress. Mrs. Danvers worships Rebecca and keeps her room in the exact state it was in when she died, as a sort of shrine. She brings our narrator to shame and near suicide by manipulating the young woman’s choice of costume at a masked ball. And, though it is never explicitly stated in the book, she is the number one suspect in the final destruction of Manderley itself.
Because I hadn’t seen Hitchcock’s film, I had the good fortune of being able to read the novel without prejudice. When I did see it, I was disappointed in the movie. The film seemed wooden and flat compared to the richness of du Maurier’s prose and, though I rarely fault the great director for atmosphere, for me it lacked the eeriness of the written piece. Such is the strength of du Maurier’s words that I found myself anxious as I read them, as nervous as the narrator herself, and full of dread about her fate.
Du Maurier herself was a little unsure of the novel. The first draft was unsuccessful; she termed it a “literary miscarriage.” When she finally delivered it to her publisher, she described it merely as “a sinister tale about a woman who marries a widower . . . Psychological and rather macabre.” And yet, some eighty years after its publication, it has become her signature piece, her most popular novel, and indeed, one of the most haunting and awe-inspiring books I have had the pleasure of reading.